Religious sect Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha is facing new accusations that it forced hundreds of Indian workers, most of them Dalits and Adivasis, to work at temple construction sites across the United States for long hours and low pay, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.
Earlier in May, Indian workers had filed a lawsuit alleging that they were brought to the US by the religious sect and forced to work for more than 87 hours a week for $450 a month (over Rs 33,000), or about $1.20 an hour, at a temple construction site in New Jersey’s Robbinsville township.
New Jersey’s minimum wage is $12 an hour and US law requires the pay rate for most hourly workers to rise to 1.5 times when they work more than 40 hours a week.
This lawsuit, amended last month, has been expanded to include other temples in the country where the workers said they were sent to work, according to The New York Times.
The workers were brought to the US on religious visas, or R-1 visas, and their passports were confiscated, the lawsuit filed in May had said. It added that the workers were forbidden from talking to visitors and religious volunteers. They were confined within the fenced-in, guarded site and faced pay cuts for minor violations, such as being seen without a helmet, according to The New York Times.
The United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor had removed about 90 workers from the site on the day the lawsuit was filed.
The amended lawsuit has now accused the officials of the religious sect of violating state labor laws and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, also known as RICO, according to The New York Times. The Act is aimed at targeting organised crime.
The amended lawsuit names 21 workers. Of these, 17 are currently in India after being removed from the New Jersey temple, according to their lawyer. Four others, who have also been removed, are in the US.
“It’s important that all workers who saw their labour and civil rights violated at BAPS temples across the US have the opportunity to seek justice,” Daniel Werner, a lawyer in the wage claim suit, told The New York Times.
One of the labourers had died at the site last year, prompting a backlash among the workers, following which they contacted Swati Sawant, an immigration lawyer in New Jersey. Sawant had said that she secretly organised the workers and arranged legal teams to pursue both wage and immigration claims.
The lawsuit in May claimed that the workers from recruited based on their marginalised status in Indian society, adding that one overseer called them “worms”, according to The New York Times.
The Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha has denied any wrongdoing. Lawyer Paul J Fishman, representing the sect, claimed that the federal government has routinely allowed stone artisans to qualify for R-1 visas, adding that agencies regularly inspected “all of the construction projects on which those artisans volunteered”.
The Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha on its official website describes itself as a “socio-spiritual Hindu organisation with its roots in the Vedas”.
It has close ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who gave an eulogy after the death of its spiritual head Pramukh Swami Maharaj in 2016. Modi also laid the foundation stone for a temple the group is building in Abu Dhabi, The New York Times reported.
In February, the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha donated Rs 2.11 crore for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.